The walls wrinkle mainly where the trim meets white expanse, and even that isn’t what we’d call white. We worry about spackle, still, and more so the unstilled spackle, the home’s open-heart guts.
A landlady once asked us what we could see: could we see through them. We can’t see daylight through the walls—this light—but sometimes we say daylight in jest and sometimes we see daylight through the windows when the wind moves boughs enough to disclose something like daylight.
On exterior walls, holes appear counting years of neglect. Years of attention maybe, of weathered defenses. I recall Milo’s walls.
My last night in Dubrovnik, he said, “I must give you a kiss. I’ll tell you why when we reach the port.”
Milo’s villa makes a transitory home on my way down the Dalmation coast, a set of walls I reserved from Zagreb twelve hours before. My route meets maps only when cyber cafés and hostelling websites cross my path. I am wandering but unlost.
Milo’s guests are often lost. He finds them at the bus depot. He calls their names in crowds of billowing skirts and yapping villa mothers and drives them past the walled city, up toward the hills. After the climb, he toasts his travelers with crisp Ozjurik, and beams on his city below.
The road to the house winds and winds, yet steps from the house do nothing but descend. I can stand atop the Old City’s walls and see Milo’s home. The city can see me from his home. Behind this particular row of Croatian homes, steps don’t exist. From here, I am a wall of the city.
I travel alone and unmapped, but I must not go where paths are absent, no higher than villa walls because some lines are invisible but not imaginary. Even a map will not show confrontation lines. A map will not show the de-mining progress, but it will tell me detonations are always a possibility. I am, for now, unacquainted with wars close to homes. I know only from guidebook caveats how they leave unease and explosive potentials.
Nevertheless, I rest in Milo’s home, so I meet his family.
Milo says his father is eighty-five. His father climbs up four hundred steps four times a day. Sixty-five I think he looks. Milo’s daughter holds the maps. She circles and lines. Milo’s wife is inside the house. Milo’s wife, always inside.
Milo lost his family once. He fought the Yugoslav army without his family, to keep them, and for years he lost them, could say nothing to them. And the keening of the wind today keeps the city and me on land, keeps the salt in my throat, and keeps the boats moored.
He says, “When you get to the Old City look at the walls. Look for bullet holes.” He tells me how to find war.
I exit the villa walls, climb down four hundred steps and I carry maps and my feet lose lines and my feet go in circles, finally meeting the hoary walls. I find small repairs and their handymen’s seams. The misfit gleam of unworn marble and the patchwork-richened red clay tiles all color the city, show where wounds once opened. And still, I can find holes in the walls. Only near tops of the tallest buildings. Only above the tallest tourist’s eye line.
Milo explains, “We don’t patch holes in Dubrovnik.” He says, “Holes remind us.”
Milo gathers his travelers on nights when one of us must depart, and I am just one held inside the villa’s walls, abutting the orange city glow and the evening indigo of the Adriatic lapping at its light. He calls it a celebration and tells us his stories and histories, and the couple from Mississippi unveils how their home became a sea in Katrina’s broken levees, and the two men from New Zealand insist I am Swedish because my accent hints at it, and they wish to smoke my black cigarettes, and I silently list the ways my voice could indicate that I am breaking down my walls one city at a time. Milo pours twenty-year old brandy and oh, the sweet tang of plums and the warming bite increasing in each swallow.
Milo drives me to the port at midnight. He says I pack light for a woman.
Milo says, “I must kiss you.” He says, “You pack light and bring joy to my house. Take my stories outside these walls.”
Too, abscesses bubble on the southern-most walls, a Braille protruding more boldly when lit by fluorescents. I imagine bug babies cocooned in the walls. You say heat and cold, something about an expansion/contraction dance. If we lay our ears against the bed frame, we can feel the electricity. If we lay our ears against the bed frame, we can hear the murmur coursing. The stucco walls ripple. The severed phone lines keep quiet—fail to connect.
Once, we laid on the new carpet. When the carpet stopped emitting scents of piss, we stopped letting visitors dye hair in the living room. We spread our arms wide, fingertip to fingertip, and we imagined if the clouds were really like cartoons. We surrendered this thinking, said sitting on the porch long enough to watch a cloud move seemed such a waste of time.
The cracks spider down the ceiling.
Once we asked for a strip of plastic to plug the slit at the base of the door. We asked to cut holes in the walls, to empty the hot dryer air through vents instead of makeshift exits lined with Coke boxes and duct tape, to mend holes in the screens. Once we bought plastic to adhere to windows with a hair dryer, to keep the blizzards out of the bedrooms.
What a mild winter, this late spring wintering.
When summer, the city says we have six days and something like, “Please control the weed growth. Please control your entire property.” And we laugh because between us we own only such things as mismatched dishes and bookshelves, other things that pile and stack with use and ingestion, art from exes and photos from excess film.
In the hall hang five photos: London under a sepia lens. And I think about renting six feet by eight feet of living space next to the Thames, adopting the apt lingo: a flat. I think walls happen more often there. They have more rain to keep out. More people to keep in.
The walls perfectly hold me in sleeping, head walled and feet walled and a bed snuggling between two walls and ninety quid a week to prove I can live outside the bounds of my walls. I am twenty-years numb—mainly landlocked, with front doors unlocked—and all I want is a railcard and to know what fear feels like.
It feels like the incessantly questioning inflections of a flatmate’s Liverpudlian accent and the snap of departing Underground doors perched over a mindful gap. It feels like performing a monologue from Macbeth for a Scottish drama teacher. Something like the sun setting at 3:30 in the afternoon. Like inspecting my reflection in the Thames, understanding a world moves without me in its walls.
It feels like sledgehammers and asking. It feels like waking up.
Here, the neighbor’s ducks keep me awake, and the alley traffic keeps you awake, and some nights we pass in the insomniac hallway, the sagging floor depressed and creaking.
I am most awake on a night when the foxes are hungry.
The agitated ducks sound in the same frequency as restless infants, and I must imagine simply a disagreement over occupancy versus capacity in their blue plastic swimming pool. I must quiet what knows a slaughter is taking place next door. I know the order of things, the way we must devour the damaged parts of ourselves. I must sleep at night because in the morning I am seen. I must be me in a new way.
In the morning, an irregular quiet keeps me asleep, and a fox trots past you on the front porch, dragging a duck by its neck. It pauses, two legs twitch—one shorter than the other—and the fox parades Limpy on down the block.
I’d done nothing in the night, hadn’t addressed the confrontation. The chaos outside our fence and inside these walls trains me into complacency. I’ve considered violence a constant barrage and possibility, and I’ve found the cracking walls enough address of this some days.
We keep chaos at bay by dividing, keep the cats locked in separate rooms, position walls and doors between their instincts to attack. We keep these animals safe in our house, safe and isolated. They can’t sleep in the same room.
I’ve slept in utter stillness for two nights, compliments of the short straw, the top bunk of death-by-bunk-bed roulette. One room and eight hostellers and the threat of death teeter in the age of metal. I am, at least, highest above sea level, in case the walls start filling with Laguna Véneta.
I can speak when in Venice, and my bones curse in Italian. I am two-semesters trained in Italian. Confidence nabs me a free scoop of pistachio and a split-second of veneration and put simply, parlate italiano! grazie! grazie! from the gelato vendor.
An elderly couple stops me. In Italian, they confess, “Dear, we’re lost. We found each other, but we can’t find our train. Can you help us?”
I study their tickets. I linger in obfuscation. I listen for the staccato clicks of a changing timetable, locate it on the train station wall.
I am two-semesters trained in Italian.
“You, train three platform at the right, no left. I don’t speak well this language. I’m sorry I have learned.”
The earwig infestation and two-pronged ass protrusions and “they don’t bite” and you being bitten while horror movies played. The horrible movie we placed in a Ziplock bag, determined to shield its evil from the unsuspecting Blockbuster populations.
The hailstorm that filled the front porch chair, knocked the mailbox top off its duct taped hinge, peeled the roof matter from housetop to ground at a more alarming rate than usual. The streets looked like white rivers, what streams might be if rivering from a marble quarry. We left the front door open throughout this maelstrom. We asked it in.
In Wimbledon, Natalia keeps a garden overgrown. She invites me to chop what she’s pulled from the ground that afternoon: purpled onions, bell peppers, lumpy cucumbers. We have four colors vehemently mixing on a board and German composers heating the radio waves and the kitchen air is alive with faint soil and potatoes crackling in a skillet. Her French boyfriend is composing on the piano in the next room, battling for ear space.
Natalia is Polish. On Tuesday evenings, we sit beside one another in a tiny room in London while a large Sicilian woman teaches us how to trade phone numbers in Italian. Natalia’s fluent in French and Polish and English and, soon, Italian and wants nothing more than to visit the States.
Natalia is fiery when she shows me her Polish passport. “Because my mother tends her gardens, cooks in a kitchen in Poland, because my father works in a factory in Poland, your country won’t let me in.”
All I can think to say to Natalia is a storm of Italian foods and numbers, and I’m contemplating how a nationality can make walls more solid, how a bank account and stability and a successful visa interview determine them more transparent. I’m remembering the bus in Bosnia, the border patrol asking its passengers to hold up an I.D., their quick glance from the front of the bus and their satisfied exit. I’m remembering the Croatian port authority, stamping my navy blue passport without question but offering a comment: “You’re much too young and female to be traveling alone.” Walls had proven so passable for me in some longitudes of the world.
I say nothing and the music from two rooms is dissonant.
She asks, “Your country won’t like this cooking and working?”
We ask and ask, and no one will fix our home. We try to repair errors, mend what the landlady discounts, and we still shiver at night and we still don’t step where the soft floor gives.
The tree specialist says a tree is crumbling our foundation. He’s crawled under the house and seen the roots climbing under our feet. He says our walls will continue shifting. The floors will continue caving and the roof will continue shedding until the city upends it, until the walls have been knocked down.
The landlady schedules the removal of the hundred-foot pine, opting to destroy what lives above the ground and hope that what’s tangling below will untangle, cease to twist at the least.
I am tangled with the wonder of everything, with the worry that I am unliving if not moving. A small town once walled me, called me its inhabitant, and I continue moving to escape root clutches. I continue moving to understand where I stand and how to build from the excavated remains. I move to identify remains.
It seems walls always flourish further under the soil, mining more boundaries than intended. What we’d call a mismanaged property solidifies the necessity of walls and, perhaps more importantly, the necessity of their destruction. We opt to abandon these walls before they further deteriorate, before their envisioned purpose completely disintegrates.
I leave my handprint on a bedroom wall after the landlady’s inspection. And I’d swear I can see daylight this moving day.
Haley Larson is a writer living in Colorado, and she currently teaches composition and poetry at Colorado State University. Some of her poems appear in Country Music, Shampoo, La Petite Zine and other spaces.